Chris Johnson, a 30-year-old Detroit transplant, isn’t expecting to find love online anytime soon.
Johnson, who works in technical support for a cellphone company, has had her fair share of experiences in the cyber-dating market. She had an early start at Michigan State University, when dating sites were first gaining traction. Mainly out of boredom, she’d go online to meet other students.
Most of her experiences were positive. During her time on social sites like Plenty of Fish and OkCupid, she even managed to make a few friends along the way.
But trying to find a serious partner online proved another story for Johnson, an Arizona resident.
“You don’t really get to interact with the person in person, see their facial expressions and hear the intonations in their words,” she says. “So when you meet them after talking to them for a couple of weeks, it can come as something of a surprise.”
It’s a lesson that she had to learn the hard way.
Johnson, ready to settle down, was reviewing profiles on Plenty of Fish when she received a promising message from a man named Shawn.
“On my profile I was looking for someone to build a relationship with,” she says. “I wasn’t looking for other types of relationships. I was looking for an actual serious one.”
Shawn was 26 years old, worked at a car factory and was handsome. He expressed interest quickly, and after reading through his profile on the site, Johnson was interested as well. Messaging led to text conversations, which in turn led to phone calls.
The conversations were deep; the type you would have with someone you were moving toward a committed relationship with.
“We would talk about wanting to have kids in the future,” says Johnson. “We would talk about past relationships and things that had hurt us from previous relationships.”
After weeks of getting to know each other online, they agreed to meet for dinner and a movie.
Johnson arrived at the theater and didn’t see Shawn. Waiting at the entrance, she received a phone call. Shawn was asking where she was, and Johnson responded with her location. A man approached her, but he was older and had a heavier frame than the image she’d associated with her online romance.
He was Shawn. He just wasn’t “the” Shawn she had been talking to for weeks.
She’d been catfished.
The Evolution of Catfishing
The term “catfish” reached mainstream media the way most social phenomena do—via pop culture.
“Catfish” is a September 2010 American documentary that told the story of Nev Schulman, a young photographer who received a painting of one of his photos from Abby Pierce, a child artist in Michigan. Through Facebook, he began a friendship with her and her family, including Abby’s attractive older sister, Megan.
After engaging in an online relationship with Megan, Schulman found inconsistencies with Megan and her family’s story. He traveled to Michigan to confront Megan and found out she wasn’t the person he thought she was. Megan was Angela, Abby’s mother, who was the real artist behind the painting. She was using the photo of a family friend on Facebook to speak to Schulman.
Angela’s husband, Vince, called her a “catfish.” When live cod were shipped in tanks to Asia from North America, their flesh became mushy due to inactivity. So fishermen started putting catfish in the tanks to keep them active.
An online catfish does just that. Keeps people on their toes and always thinking.
In addition to the documentary, Schulman is the man behind “Catfish: The TV Show” on MTV. The show, co-hosted by Max Joseph, returned for a 10-episode run in May. Schulman and Joseph were unavailable for an interview, but Schulman described the latest season in a press release.
“Making ‘Catfish: The TV Show’ the last two years has exposed me to all kinds of strange and unusual scenarios, but nothing could have prepared me for the twists and turns of season three,” Schulman says.
“This season we have family members catfishing each other, celebrities hunting down their super-fan stalkers, Instagram romance, people posing as famous music producers and scams resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars. The lies, love, betrayals and surprises will not only make you think twice about online love, but will completely change the way you think about society.”
In addition to the new types of stories, Nev and Max will also employ new techniques expanding their investigating repertoire—from digital-based research to more in-person meetings.
The term “catfish” has even been added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.
Dr. Pauline Hope Cheong, associate professor at ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication and editor of the book “New Media and Intercultural Communication: Identity, Community and Politics,” says the practice itself is not a recent phenomenon.
“We have seen how people play with their identities, including the manipulation of their gender, in older text-based technologies like BBS (first-generation bulletin boards) and chat forums,” says Cheong.
Social media platforms allow individuals to post selected snapshots of themselves, such as posting only appealing photos of themselves online, he adds.
“Moreover, digital photographic and editing tools on social media (and smartphones) may also allow individuals to enhance their image. In self branding [they attempt] to portray their most positive and socially attractive appearances online.”
Cheong says she believes societal factors may be at fault for the rise of catfishing on social media, including the unavoidable presence of online networks that allow users to be more familiar with others’ lives through their updates, feeds and uploads.
Emotions and loneliness may be another motivation for catfishing, she adds.
How to Protect Yourself
While “Catfish: The TV Show” makes for some entertaining television, the reality of virtual deceit can be far more serious.
In March, for example, the Glendale Police Department arrested Anna Areola-Hernandez, a 23-year-old Arizona woman who allegedly gave a boy a sexually transmitted disease she may have caught from having sex with other minors after pretending to be a teenager.
According to a report by AZ Family, Areola-Hernandez met the 13-year-old boy at Desert Sky Mall in Glendale and began a relationship through Facebook after telling him she was 15.
The report says Glendale detectives with the Sex Crimes Unit found Areola-Hernandez used social media platforms such as Kik, Snapchat and Tango to contact other minors.
Glendale Detective Brad Eith, who could not comment on specifics because the case is still an ongoing investigation, says the arrest has received so much attention because the alleged perpetrator is a woman. Eith says the use of social media in crimes like these is not new; nor are children the only ones in danger when it comes to online connections.
“People are meeting people, and you don’t really know who you’re talking to and what the background of that person is,” Eith says.
But Eith does have tips on how social media users can protect themselves from “catfishers.” No. 1, is Google Images.
Eith suggests saving a photo of the person you are communicating online with and uploading it into Google’s search engine. Google will do a search using the photo, which could potentially pull up any other profiles associated with the image.
Aside from a public meeting, Eith recommends doing a simple background check, along with requesting photos of your new online friend with a personalized sign. Eith suggests the person include the date or his or her name on the sign.
“That’s only going to verify that the person in the pictures they’re presenting … is actually that person,” he cautions. “It’s not going to say that their name or their birthday or anything else that they’re giving you is accurate.”
Johnson couldn’t shake the uneasiness she felt when discovering Shawn’s photo was a fake.
She figured he was using a family member’s photo, as there was some resemblance. Still, she felt like she understood his reasoning behind the deception.
“I guess he just put up this picture to get people to see him on the inside and not the outside,” says Johnson.
Johnson had been willing to give him a chance, and even went out with him a couple of times after confronting him about the photo.
She quickly found out she shouldn’t have wasted her time.
“After we met in person, it seemed he stopped caring about keeping up appearances,” she says. “He turned into a different person than what he was presenting himself. He was presenting himself as a gentleman, but there was no chivalry there. It was disturbing.”
Johnson cut all ties with Shawn. She hasn’t heard from him since doing so.
Today, she’s a lot less trusting of whom she talks to online and their intentions.
“I’m more critical,” says Johnson. “There are a lot of people out there who have a way to manipulate you based on what you put on your profile and what you reveal to them. They can kind of play off of that, and I just really don’t care for it.”
Johnson says resuming her search for a relationship using social media is off the table after her catfish experience. The concept has been tainted.
“I don’t do it anymore,” she says. “He scarred me for life.”